Indigenous youth: Preventing child removals is imperative for justice

Melbourne NAIDOC March 2015: every year, hundreds of strong and confident Aboriginal children march. Photo by Alison Thorne.
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On 29 November, a damning report was quietly launched in the Great Hall at Parliament House in Canberra. The Family Matters Report 2017, issued by SNAICC — the Aboriginal non-governmental peak body responsible for issues impacting First Nations children and families — attracted barely a ripple of interest from the mainstream media. But the picture it revealed is a national scandal. If no new action is taken, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed by child protection authorities will triple by 2035.

Decades of inaction. The facts are known and so are the underpinning causes, yet the scale of the problem continues to rise exponentially.

In 1997, the national enquiry into the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families tabled the Bringing Them Home report in the very same parliament. The situation, well-known to Indigenous people, finally hit the headlines. The term “Stolen Generations” entered the lexicon.

The enquiry interviewed a thousand First Nations people who told tragic stories: kids were snatched sometimes from their mother’s arms, deprived of their culture and language and subjected to religious indoctrination. Siblings were separated, children were beaten and sexually abused. They were forced into domestic and rural servitude and had their wages stolen. Between 1910 and 1970 possibly as many as one in three Indigenous kids were removed. Both the women who lost their children and the kids separated from their communities continue to suffer extreme trauma. The facts were compelling: the report concluded that genocide had been practiced against Indigenous Australians.

Its recommendations included a national apology and the payment of reparations. Despite the report’s 689 pages of detailed evidence, the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard became infamous for refusing to countenance an apology.

It took more than a decade before Prime Minister Kevin Rudd finally gave a formal apology in Parliament on 13 February 2008. But to this day, not a dollar of compensation has been paid.

Bringing Them Home did not fudge on what was still happening. It found that kids from First Nations families were six times more likely to be removed and that 20 percent of children in out-of-home care were Indigenous. Just 2 percent of the population identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander in the 1996 Census.

Structural racism. The combination of 21st century capitalism, obsessed with privatisation, slashing social support and looking after the big end of town, coupled with the legacy of colonisation, underpins the crisis we see now. Today, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children has ballooned to 36 percent of those in out-of-home care, and they are now almost 10 times more likely to be removed by child protection authorities than non-Indigenous children.

Despite this growing catastrophe, the Family Matters Report points out that funding goes into reacting to problems rather than solving them. For every $5 that the government spends on trying to protect children, less than $1 goes to support parents and children. A massive $4 billion in funding goes into the state-run child protection systems with their appalling record of removing children from families.

Poverty is also a huge factor. Aboriginal people are 3.5 times more likely to be unemployed than the Australian population as a whole. When it comes to social welfare, governments continue to slash and burn. Every year, there are new cuts to income support payments. For Aboriginal people in many parts of the country, these payments are in the form of the paternalistic Basics Card. Aboriginal people are 14 times more likely to be homeless, and one in every four First Nations persons using a homeless service is a child under 10-years-old. Added to this, police racially profile Indigenous people, who end up over-represented in the prison population, often for reasons such as unpaid fines or issues related to poverty, dispossession and ill-health. With all this stacked against them, no wonder some parents are struggling to care for their children.

The removals-detention nexus. For Indigenous children, the best option is to support both the child and parent who is caring for them. The next best option is kinship care: children with a strong sense of identity and knowledge of their culture are more resilient. But rates of kinship care have been falling, too. A decade ago, 65% of children in out-of-home care were placed in kinship care, but today this has dropped to 50%.

In every state and territory, children who are removed from their parents and communities and taken into state care do poorly in these environments. In Victoria, half of all children in youth detention centres have come from the misnamed child “protection” system. As a result, the “child in need” is quickly rebranded and demonised as the “child offender.”

Before being locked up, teens in the Victorian juvenile justice system are also likely to have experienced abuse, mental health issues, homelessness or insecure housing and been failed by the education system.

The Victorian government is adopting the completely wrong approach. Instead of increased funding for culturally appropriate programs to support young people and their parents, it continues to pour funding into law-and-order measures, such as more police and more prisons.

In the last budget, it allocated $288 million to build a new youth supermax prison at Cherry Creek. Minister for Families and Children, Jenny Mikakos claims proudly that the new 224 bed high security facility will “address capacity issues for years to come.”

Underscoring why this project must not go ahead are the findings of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, released last November. While the findings were disappointing in that they failed to recommend any charges against those who had assaulted and abused teenagers in Darwin’s Don Dale Detention Centre, the report found that the Territory government failed to comply with basic human rights standards in its treatment of children. The Commissioners also argued that “the time for tinkering around the edges and ignoring the conclusions of the myriad of inquiries that have already been conducted must come to an end.” They recommended the closure of Don Dale and a move away from a punitive model to one focused on the needs of young people, which would include increased diversionary and therapeutic programs.

Time for solutions. Construction of the Victorian facility at Cherry Creek is completely counter to these recommendations. Scrap this project now! Redirect the funding to programs that will reduce the detention of Indigenous kids and others whom the system fails.

Support the Stop Failing Our Kids campaign, initiated by the Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne. This campaign is mobilising a groundswell of support for real solutions. It demands funding for housing and social welfare programs and full funding for culturally appropriate services to keep young people out of the child protection system in the first place.

Further reading:

Abuse of Aboriginal kids sparks mass protests – Let’s build a movement to WIN!, By Alison Thorne, Freedom Socialist Organiser, October 2016

Stop Failing Our Kids!” Campaign demands Victorian government be held accountable for Juvenile Justice crisis by Youkyoung Lee, Freedom Socialist Organiser, July 2017

For more information about Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne:

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